As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.
Essay Nine: “Masks”
The American writer William Gass once wrote “culture has completed its work when everything is a sign.” It’s an ominous statement if, as I do, you believe culture moves like a river and is never still. Progress rides on currents. Still I’ll take Gass at his intended word—small “c” culture demands petrifaction, signs to rivet the mind and stop all thinking. Gass was warning us and his employment of culture has invisible quotation marks. One may also fairly say this about disability signs. They circumscribe the disabled, are sometimes a matter of envy among able bodied people who resent our perceived privileges, and though our signs are liberating, they can entrap us—they’re outdated the moment we post them, they don’t represent real humans. And who is really disabled anyway? It’s a 19th century word. It’s as outdated as antimacassars on horsehair chairs.
The ADA @ 30 cannot know this. It’s a living law but not your disabled neighbor. That the very word disability needs to be retired is unquestionable even as perhaps, the opinion may not be universally popular. We the disabled have fought too hard for our place at the table. We’ve fought too hard for our dignity and our sense of inclusion. Giving away the disability word would be foolish. Even a kind of defeat.
But one thinks of Willian Gass. Disability is an ossified sign and the public that imagines itself without disability (a fantasy if ever there was one….like believing in the tooth fairy) takes it to mean lack of capacity. The ADA @ 30 cannot fix this but its a real problem. The employer who turns away disabled job applicants believes culture has completed its work—thinks disability means lack of intelligence, stamina, gumption, power, potential, on and on it goes.
We change the universal wheelchair logo to make the wheelchair look more mobile, even a bit jazzy. I like it. Every wheelchair user I’ve ever known was both mobile and jazzy. This is true of blind folks whether they travel with a cane or a dog; true of the deaf who are poets of the vernacular and the sublime, sometimes making the the same thing. It’s true of my autist friends. They all know what Emily Dickinson meant when she said poetry makes the top of her head fly off. Autists move in spaces even NASA doesn’t know about.
Disability activists have claimed the world cripple to offset the cultural bone yard of the “d” word. As the late Nancy Mairs wrote” “as a cripple I swagger.” I’ve always liked this. I also admire the idea of “crippling” as a troubling of normal-think. Disabled lives are inventive lives; we are indeed “troubling” to normal people but we offer tons of imagination. Siri came from the blind and not your business as usual dudes.
I’ll take cripple over disability but main street still doesn’t see it. We need an expanded word for citizen as Black Lives Matter tries to tell us, as the Me Too Movement tries to tell us. I’m not abled or disabled, I’m a citizen, equal to you and you.
I like universal citizen.
This means I’m imagining citizenship as achievement, accomplishment, capacity.
Now I’ve a theory of sorts. Lost in the American culture war over wearing masks in a pandemic—lost in all the back flips from the right—lost in the arguments (such as they are) about the freedom to not wear a mask, the liberation from government control, the “don’t tread on me” flag waving—lost in all of this is a fundamental ableism, a sign, a William Gass irony. Masks make people look ill; appear disabled; resemble second class citizens. This is primitive ableist exceptionalism smothering science and common sense.
The disabled know all about it. I remember the cab driver in New York City who told me I was obviously a victim of voodoo. How else to explain blindness?
The cripples know we appear sinister. And the maskless believe they’ll be stuck forever in the land of broken toys if they succumb and do something that would save their lives.